Anyone who has tried their hand at fiction knows it’s difficult enough to tell an engaging story, much less one worthy of putting in a time capsule for future readers to study and appreciate. Yet it’s in those terms that people are talking about Taipei, the new novel from U.S. author Tao Lin.
A hypnotic journey through the lives of a cluster of dissolute, status-obsessed New Yorkers, Taipei has garnered Lin some euphoric praise. Bret Easton Ellis anointed him “the most interesting prose stylist of his generation,” while Publishers Weekly claims that Lin “captures the sleepwalking malaise of [his] generation so completely, it’s scary.” One critic even called him “a Kafka for the iPhone generation.”
I imagine that, at the outset of their careers, most literary authors fantasize about being “the voice of a generation,” a writer who not only distills the social tenor of his or her time, but does so in confident, bracing prose. And I can see why Lin, whose output includes a novella called Shoplifting From American Apparel, might attract such notice.
A fluid, meandering book, Taipei follows Paul, a twenty-something novelist struggling with the weight of various expectations: the promise of his college years, his conservative Taiwanese mother, and the reputational demands of living in hipster Brooklyn. To defer reality and any serious soul-searching in these recessionary times, Paul and his friends turn to drugs (especially coke and Klonopin), shabby relationships, and a seemingly unending string of parties.
Amid all this debauchery, Lin reveals a profound sense of apathy and alienation. At one get-together, Paul finds himself sitting “in a space-module-like bedroom, in which six to 10 people, smoking marijuana, watched a video off a MacBook of obese people screaming in pain earnestly while exercising and being screamed at motivationally, in what seemed to be a grotesque parody, or something, of something.” Taipei is full of sentences like this: windy, awkward, disjointed, unresolved. They’re not always a pleasure to read, but they capture the cadence and casual nihilism of the YouTube era, when so many of us find joy in the agony of strangers.
When people talk of epochal books, they often cite The Great Gatsby, which exposed the dark dreams of the Jazz Age, or On the Road, which confounded many middle-aged literary critics half a century ago with its breezy beatnik characters and loose, digressive riffs. On the Road was a generational cri de coeur at a time—the late ’50s—of great social conformity. It revealed a vivid counterculture that many mainstream readers didn’t know existed.
Taipei captures a subculture, too, but we’ve seen these types before in movies (Slackers) and graphic novels (Ghost World): bored, overstimulated, underachieving layabouts. It’s little surprise that Ellis would blurb Taipei—the sullen characters, drug references, and almost comically banal dialogue are reminiscent of Ellis’s 1985 debut, Less Than Zero. Another perceived interpreter of an era, Ellis’s early works encapsulated the destructive hedonism of the ’80s.
Calling a contemporary novelist the voice of a generation is effective marketing shorthand. It suggests the book you are holding is in fact historic—or will be, in the near future. But that slogan has become meaningless.
Taipei isn’t momentous enough to define an era, but that’s hardly the author’s fault—the time when a writer, such as Jack Kerouac or F. Scott Fitzgerald, could singlehandedly capture the essence of a period is long past. That’s because we’re no longer living in a monoculture. Through globalization, readers and publishers have become aware that the western narrative, if you will, is increasingly informed by non-western experiences—just look at the work of contemporary novelists such as Gary Shteyngart or Zadie Smith, who explore the complex social nuances and hybrid identities that result from waves of immigration. Thanks to the democracy of the internet and self-publishing, the literary marketplace has become even more crowded with generational voices. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Tao Lin is clearly a committed artist—in addition to fiction, he writes poetry, has a regular column in Vice magazine (“Drug-Related Photoshop Art”), and has an indie production company called MDMAFilms. Only time will tell whether he is truly the voice of a generation or simply a chronicler of modern pharmacology.